by Carol Birch
Long-listed for the 2011 Man Booker Prize, Jamrach’s Menagerie is an absorbing story, a sort of cross between The Life of Pi and The Ancient Mariner. [at any rate it has a tiger and a cursed ship.]
Jaffy Brown is eight years old. He runs away from Bermondsey with his mother to escape her violent boyfriend. They settle in Ratcliffe Highway, an even dingier neighbourhood, where the shops – and the streets too apparently – are full of birds. While out on an errand one day, Jaffy meets a tiger that has escaped from its handlers. He survives the encounter and is offered a job by Mr Jamrach, a London dealer in wild animals and birds, to whom the tiger belongs.
This area of London has many associations with real people and events, including a series of especially grisly murders in the early nineteenth century. Charles Jamrach was a real person who bought and sold animals for profit and had some rich and important clients. In 1857, a Bengal tiger did in fact escape from his premises, and ran off with a small boy who apparently thought it was just a big pussy cat! Most of Carol Birch’s story is invention, though Jamrach’s Menagerie – the early chapters anyway – ARE based on this incident.
When Jaffy is fifteen, he goes to sea on a whaler on a quest to find and capture a dragon for his patron. Having captured the creature, presumably a Kommodo Dragon, and having caged it aboard, the crew of the whaler succumb to a series of disasters. The ship is ultimately wrecked in a storm. The crew escape in whaling boats. The rest of the book is taken up with their adventures as they struggle against the elements, suffer hunger and thirst and strive to retain their humanity.
The story is told by Jaffy in a lively first person narration. His short, sharp and sometimes ungrammatical narrative is in keeping with his background as a poor lad from the docklands of London. The novel includes vivid descriptions of a whale hunt and its outcome, which show whaling up as the barbaric and disgusting practice it is. And the story has other dark undertones reminiscent of Philbrick’s In the Heart of the Sea and of the landmark prosecution case in Victorian Britain, R v Dudley and Stephens.
Briefly, Tom Dudley was captain of a yacht bound from Southampton to Australia in 1884. Edwin Stephens was a member of the crew along with Edmund Brooks and Richard Parker, who was cabin boy. The ship was struck by a wave and sank; the crew took to a lifeboat. When they ran out of rations, Dudley killed Parker, who had meantime become ill, and the other three ate his body. On their return to England, Dudley and Stephens, though not Brooks, were charged with Parker’s murder. Anyone interested in the legal case can find a summary of it here: http://e-lawresources.co.uk/cases/R-v-Dudley-and-Stephens.php
Although the conclusion of Jamrach’s Menagerie is somewhat different, the shipwrecked crew of the whaler undergo much the same trials as their real life counterparts and find themselves faced with a similar moral dilemma.
Carol Birch’s descriptions of the squalor of dockside London, of the whale hunt and of the cruel sea are atmospheric. Yet, despite the serious subject matter, Jamrach’s Menagerie is not without humour. Though I enjoyed the story and could engage with Jaffy, the writing style appealed to me less when it came to grammar and punctuation. I found myself often turning back the pages to re-read short, verbless sentences to see if I had really understood.